Monday, 16 June 2014

Gifts of the Holy Spirit


Pope Francis uses virtually every opportunity he gets to speak about the Holy Spirit, with whom he calls Christians to have a personal relationship:
“We believe in God who is Father, who is Son, who is Holy Spirit. We believe in Persons, and when we talk to God we talk to Persons: or I speak with the Father, or I speak with the Son, or I speak with the Holy Spirit. And this is the faith. [... Not, a]n ‘all over the place - god,’ a ‘god-spray’ so to speak, who is a little bit everywhere but who no-one really knows anything about.”
But, who is this third person of the Trinity? The most concise characterization that Francis provides here is that the Holy Spirit is “God active in us,” the one who, as Jesus said, “will guide [us] to all truth” (John 16:13), and he expands on this by saying that the Holy Spirit is:
“the soul, the life blood of the Church and of every individual Christian: He is the Love of God who makes of our hearts his dwelling place and enters into communion with us. The Holy Spirit abides with us always, he is always within us, in our hearts.”
Because of his being active in the present, the Holy Spirit “is always somewhat ‘the unknown’ of the faith,” and consequently the reactions to his promptings can at times be less than positive, to the point of annoyance:
“Even among us, we see manifestations of this resistance to the Holy Spirit. Actually, to say it clearly, the Holy Spirit annoys us. Because he moves us, he makes us journey, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Oh, how wonderful it is for us to be here, all together!’ But let it not inconvenience us. We would like the Holy Spirit to doze off. We want to subdue the Holy Spirit. And that just will not work. For he is God and he is that wind that comes and goes, and you do not know from where. He is the strength of God; it is he who gives us consolation and strengthen to continue forward. But to go forward! And this is bothersome. Convenience is nicer. You all could say: ‘But Father, that happened in those times. Now we are all content with the Holy Spirit’. No, that is not true! This is still today’s temptation.”
If the Church is guided by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, she too will exude courage, candor and freedom, as Francis said during the Regina Caeli address this Pentecost, adding:
“Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise. It is incumbent upon the living Church to astound. A Church which is unable to astound is a Church that is weak, sick, dying, and that needs admission to the intensive care unit as soon as possible!”
But how can I tell whether I am listening to the Holy Spirit and allowing myself to be guided by him? Here a great check-list are his gifts, which Pope Francis spoke about in a series of Wednesday general audiences that concluded only last week.

The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as laid out in the Catechism (§1831) and as discussed by Francis, are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord, which “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” However, when Pope Francis met with a stadium-full of members of the Charismatic Renewal movement, and when he asked them which was the first gift of the Holy Spirit (an obvious trick question, that was met with embarrassed awkwardness :), he said: “It is the gift of himself, the one who is love and who makes us fall in love with Jesus.”

Instead of attempting a synthesis of the seven already synthetic general audience talks, I would just like to pick out my favorite passages from each one next:
  1. Wisdom “is the grace of being able to see everything with the eyes of God. It is simply this: it is to see the world, to see situations, circumstances, problems, everything through God’s eyes. [... T]his comes from intimacy with God, from the intimate relationship we have with God, from the relationship children have with their Father. [... T]he Holy Spirit thus makes the Christian “wise”. Not in the sense that he has an answer for everything, that he knows everything, but in the sense that he “knows” about God, he knows how God acts, he knows when something is of God and when it is not of God.”

  2. Understanding “is a grace which [... gives] the ability to go beyond the outward appearance of reality and to probe the depths of the thoughts of God and his plan of salvation. [...] This of course does not mean that a Christian can comprehend all things and have full knowledge of the designs of God: all of this waits to be revealed in all its clarity once we stand in the sight of God and are truly one with Him. However, as the very word [“l’intelletto” in Italian] suggests, understanding allows us to “intus legere”, or “to read inwardly”: this gift enables us to understand things as God understands them, with the mind of God. [...] Jesus himself told his disciples: I will send you the Holy Spirit and he will enable you to understand all that I have taught you [cf. John 16:13]. To understand the teachings of Jesus, to understand his Word, to understand the Gospel, to understand the Word of God.”

  3. Counsel “is the gift through which the Holy Spirit enables our conscience to make a concrete choice in communion with God, according to the logic of Jesus and his Gospel. [...] In intimacy with God and in listening to his Word, little by little we put aside our own way of thinking, which is most often dictated by our closures, by our prejudice and by our ambitions, and we learn instead to ask the Lord: what is your desire? What is your will? What pleases you? In this way a deep, almost connatural harmony in the Spirit grows and develops within us and we experience how true the words of Jesus are that are reported in the Gospel of Matthew: “do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak but the spirit of your Father speaking through you” (10:19-20). It is the Spirit who counsels us, but we have to make room for the Spirit, so that he may counsel us. And to give space is to pray, to pray that he come and help us always.”

  4. Fortitude. “[T]hrough the gift of fortitude, the Holy Spirit liberates the soil of our heart, he frees it from sluggishness, from uncertainty and from all the fears that can hinder it, so that Lord’s Word may be put into practice authentically and with joy. The gift of fortitude is a true help, it gives us strength, and it also frees us from so many obstacles. [...] The Apostle Paul said something that will benefit us to hear: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). When we face daily life, when difficulties arise, let us remember this: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”. The Lord always strengthens us, he never lets strength lack. The Lord does not try us beyond our possibilities. He is always with us.”

  5. Knowledge “is a special gift, which leads us to grasp, through creation, the greatness and love of God and his profound relationship with every creature. When our eyes are illumined by the Spirit, they open to contemplate God, in the beauty of nature and in the grandeur of the cosmos, and they lead us to discover how everything speaks to us about Him and His love. All of this arouses in us great wonder and a profound sense of gratitude! [... I]f God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing. [...] Creation is ours so that we can receive good things from it; not exploit it, to protect it. God forgives always, we men forgive sometimes, but creation never forgives and if you don’t care for it, it will destroy you.”

  6. Piety “indicates our belonging to God and our profound relationship with Him, a bond that gives meaning to our life and keeps us sound, in communion with Him, even during the most difficult and tormenting moments. [...] It is a relationship lived with the heart: it is our friendship with God, granted to us by Jesus, a friendship that changes our life and fills us with passion, with joy. Thus, the gift of piety stirs in us above all gratitude and praise. [... S]ome think that to be pious is to close one’s eyes, to pose like a picture and pretend to be a saint. In Piedmont we say: to play the “mugna quacia” [literally: the pious or serene nun]. This is not the gift of piety. The gift of piety means to be truly capable of rejoicing with those who rejoice, of weeping with those who weep, of being close to those who are lonely or in anguish, of correcting those in error, of consoling the afflicted, of welcoming and helping those in need. The gift of piety is closely tied to gentleness. The gift of piety which the Holy Spirit gives us makes us gentle, makes us calm, patient, at peace with God, at the service of others with gentleness.”

  7. Fear of the Lord reminds us “of how small we are before God and of his love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into his hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much. [...] It does not mean being afraid of God: we know well that God is Father, that he loves us and wants our salvation, and he always forgives, always; thus, there is no reason to be scared of him! [...] It is precisely in experiencing our own limitations and our poverty, however, that the Holy Spirit comforts us and lets us perceive that the only important thing is to allow ourselves to be led by Jesus into the Father’s arms. [...] When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love! To be conquered by the love of God! This is a beautiful thing. To allow ourselves to be conquered by this love of a father, who loves us so, loves us with all his heart.”
What struck me first as I read Francis’ words is how the gifts of the Holy Spirit are extraordinary (knowledge of whether something is of God, an understanding with the mind of God, communion with God, freedom from uncertainty, contemplation of God, friendship with God, being led by Jesus) and how no sane person could claim to have the means of achieving them. Were I to say that I can “think with the mind of God,” I would be a good candidate for being committed to a mental asylum. That is precisely not what Francis is saying though. He is at pains to differentiate the gifts of the Holy Spirit from self-delusional claims of omniscience, “full knowledge of the designs of God,” or self-originating sanctity. The key idea here is that these extraordinary realities are gifts as opposed to achievements - and they are gifts whose effects come about “little by little,” as we make ourselves receptive of them, by putting aside our ways of thinking, our ambitions and prejudices. The relationship with the Holy Spirit is one of contradictions, of extremes: on the one hand it calls for child-like trust and self-effacing humility, on the other hand it brings passion, freedom and joy.